NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Saturday that Georgia and Ukraine`s membership aspirations still remain in the balance less than three weeks before the alliance`s summit, according to AFP.

The two former Soviet states hope to win invitations to join NATO`s so-called membership action plan (MAP), which helps aspiring countries prepare for future entry, when leaders meet in Bucharest from April 2-4.

Scheffer said he hoped that the two "will see results of Bucharest as an inspiration for them to proceed on their Euro-Atlantic track. In what form that will exactly be, it is honestly quite early to tell," he said.

"Thirteen or 14 working days are a long time in politics," he noted, at the Brussels Forum conference in the Belgian capital. "I hope that the few working days left will provide a more clear answer."

NATO`s 26 member nations are unable to agree on the candidacies of Georgia and Ukraine, with Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain known to be sceptical about speeding up membership proceedings.

Ukraine`s leaders support rapprochement with NATO and have applied for MAP status but there is little public support for the move.

The Georgian public is largely in favour, but NATO nations were disturbed by the state of emergency it imposed in December to end opposition protests, as well as the frozen conflicts with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Beyond the compromised candidacies, Russia has reacted angrily to their NATO ambitions, and the alliance is reluctant to fuel already tense ties with Moscow with president-elect Dmitry Medvedev soon to take office.

But Scheffer underlined that NATO must keep its door open to eastern European countries, and insisted that Russia could have no veto over who the world`s biggest military alliance lets in.

"As long as some countries feel that they are not entirely masters of their own future, not least because others try to deny them that free choice, Europe is not the common space that I want it to be," he said.

While it was important to engage Russia, he said, "that does not mean that red lines drawn by others can ever be accepted by NATO. NATO decides itself its enlargement. There are no vetoes."

A NATO official confirmed cooperation with Russia in Afghanistan on counter-narcotics and training, and said that talks were continuing on an agreement to allow NATO troops there to cross Russian territory.

He rejected as "nonsense" reports that NATO might think about closing its door to Georgia and Ukraine in return for Russian help in Afghanistan, where alliance-led troops are struggling against a tenacious Taliban-led insurgency.